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The Woman Problem & other prose

About Frances Hodgkins

page 185

About Frances Hodgkins

Our custom of exporting (or very often, in effect, deporting) our best brains and talents has in recent years provoked a great deal of discussion, and a negligible amount of action. What is not so often remarked is the way in which we tend to lose all trace of these people who leave us in order to seek more fertile ground. Very often we are not even aware that a loss has been sustained—unless the emigrant becomes distinguished in the field of atomic science, or makes some contact with the Royal Family, or in some other way gets into the headlines.

I suppose most readers of the Listener will have seen examples of pottery designed by Keith Murray. How many of them are aware that Keith Murray was born in New Zealand, and educated at the old St John's College (and later at King's College) in Auckland? He is now, of course, a very distinguished architect, as well as being one of the half-dozen most famous pottery designers in the world.

The fact that Keith Murray has left New Zealand and settled in England doesn't prevent his work from coming here. There is, perhaps, no great loss to anybody as a result of his change of address. I find it odd, however, that there should be such a lack of interest in him in the country of his birth.

When we come to consider Frances Hodgkins the position is rather different. If she had lived in New Zealand, or spent any considerable amount of time here, she might have given us interpretations of our landscape that would have helped greatly in the development of New Zealand painting. Nearly all her work—and certainly all the best of it—has been done in Europe.

But even at that, her painting should have a strong interest for New Zealanders. One would expect to see half a dozen page 186of her finest works in each of our big galleries. One would expect to see wealthy New Zealanders buying her paintings and treasuring them. One would indeed—if one did not know one's New Zealand. The sad truth is that most New Zealanders have never heard of Frances Hodgkins; and that those who have heard her name have seen practically nothing of her work. I regard it as unfortunate, therefore that the only reference to her that I have seen in print in New Zealand for some years was that made by a Listener contributor, T. D. H. Hall, some weeks ago. Mr Hall's comments conveyed, to me at least, some faint suggestion that Miss Hodgkins has been steadily going to the pack ever since she left New Zealand years ago; and that she is now neck-deep in the 'cult of unintelligibility' against which M. Julien Benda inveighed the other day. Those readers who may have seen the recent article by Myfanwy Piper in the English Listener dealing with Frances Hodgkins's life and work (to which Mr Hall referred)—and who noticed that she was given the honour of a front-cover reproduction of one of her paintings—will perhaps have gathered that her reputation stands very high. Mrs Piper's article (or rather broadcast talk) is, I think, a fine and illuminating piece of criticism. If her metaphors are vivid and striking, this is something to be grateful for. It is hardly possible to convey to listeners and readers one's personal impressions of a painter's work to give some hint of its emotional power, without abandoning the language of the laboratory and the bureau of statistics.

I met Frances Hodgkins in London in 1931. I was at that time very friendly with Lucy Wertheim, who ran the Wertheim Gallery. Lucy had been a generous backer and patron of Frances Hodgkins, Christopher Wood, and several other fine painters. She had about twenty Christopher Woods, magnificent things, which she was refusing to sell. Wood had met with his tragic death not very long before this, and she was still living in the shadow of that great loss. She insisted that within a few years these paintings would be worth three and four hundred pounds apiece. Lucy wasn't really interested in the money. She wanted Christopher Wood's page 187reputation to be established at its proper level. (She turned out later to be right in all her predictions.)

Lucy Wertheim was a great admirer of the work of Frances Hodgkins. And, seeing that we were both New Zealanders, she wanted to bring us together. There was a bit of backing and filling on Miss Hodgkins's part which I found puzzling. I was a nobody—and she was very definitely a somebody: but one is always glad, surely, to meet someone from back home—or is one?

Then, one night, I did meet Frances Hodgkins. Lucy had us both to dinner. I had never seen the painter, and had no notion of what she looked like. I remember walking round on that dank winter evening to Lucy's flat in Regent's Park Road, next door to Cecil Sharp House, with a light step and with a certain dewiness in my eyes. When I entered the room I became aware of a figure seated in the corner, in the warm shadow cast by the heavy lamp-shade. I sensed at once, if not hostility, at least a certain aggressive reserve. Lucy introduced us. Then, after a few moments, it began. I was a New Zealander? Surely I didn't go about boasting of the fact? Surely there was nothing very extraordinary about it? And why should I assume that she might be the least interested in meeting a New Zealander? And so it went on. Surprised and embarrassed, I tried clumsily to fence with her, playing for time. I felt that there was something pent up, and that the best thing was to let it spill itself freely. I refused to be provoked by this quite astounding bitterness,, realising confusedly that it was not really directed at me. I was merely an occasion of it; and I had become, for the moment, a symbol. I let her carry on.

After a while the tension began to slacken, and I felt more at ease. I took stock of this strange woman. Her appearance was very different from anything I had imagined. She looked to be about sixty, a very vigorous sixty. She was short, and her clothes had a strong suggestion of the gipsy—I have a confused mental image of red cloth, and a very full shirt, and some metal ornaments, bangles and brooches and ear-rings and so on, which at this distance in time can't be sorted out clearly. Her personality was more striking than her clothes.

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It seemed to reverberate around that small room. Her manner of speaking was blunt and forceful, thoroughly downright. There was no damned humbug about her.

On the wall of the room hung one of the loveliest of her works that I have seen. Its smooth, sensuous quality seemed to belie the somewhat rocky front with which I was being presented. As my eye roved from the woman to the picture and back again, I knew quite certainly that her bark was worse than her bite. That painting gave the show away.

We talked a good deal, that evening. When she had got over her first resentment at having New Zealand thrust at her as if she were expected to like it, she became communicative, and talked wittily. I liked her bluntness, and her oddness, very much. There was a fierce honesty in her that compelled admiration. After a while I came to have some inkling as to why a New Zealander such as Frances Hodgkins could feel such a degree of negative emotion about her natal land. I felt subdued, and a little chastened; for I was aware of the particular sort of resentment, the complete lack of sympathetic understanding—in many cases, the blank indifference—with which her attitude would be regarded by most of her countrymen. Her impatience had, I think, little egotism in it. What she was protesting against, at bottom, was a certain lack of spirit in the life of New Zealanders. If she had been a snob or a comfortable dilletante I, in turn, would have become resentful. But here, beyond all doubt, was a woman full of spirit, one who had endured poverty and disappointment, pursuing her chosen work with ardour and with a bitter honesty that forbade her to take short cuts to quick success. Her protest stood.

Frances Hodgkins has some claim to be considered the greatest living woman painter. If her work is hardly known in New Zealand, that is our loss, and ours alone. Not only has she left us, and lost interest in New Zealand; in her development she has perhaps left us far behind. It is a melancholy thought.

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